Religion and Public Schools

Parent Q&A

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  • I learned recently that my kids in elementary school are hearing anti-religion teachings in their public school from the teachers (I'm still trying to find out if it is their main teacher, subject matter teacher or after school teacher).  It is public school so more than happy for religion to be not-addressed or described generally from historical perspective, but they come home saying the teacher said "God is a made up being some people believe in to feel better," or "as you go further in school you will see that all of the Bible stories have explanations in science" or "God is kind of like a fairy but for adults."  It caused some in depth conversations at home and I addressed it with the kids to the extent I could but I was very unhappy to hear it.  We are not even that religious -- we believe in evolution and science, are professionals and highly educated, and are not blindly following religion (so public school seemed ok, and I don't want to move them to religious private school even though we can afford it), but we do believe in God and observe some of the religious customs and teachings.  I don't expect the school or the teachers to follow or believe in any of it, but I do expect that they don't call our family's and many other religious' families' believes "a made up story" and say God is just something some people believe in like you believe in the tooth fairy to my elementary school children.  I'm going to try to find out which teacher is saying this, but then what.  It just seems like such a sensitive topic to bring up with the teacher, or maybe I should go straight to principal to avoid a direct conflict -- I know religion is not popular in the bay area and many folks don't believe which is fine and I would not care if this came from a friend but I don't think a teacher has a right to go there and want to make sure he/she is more careful in future as I know we are not the only religious family in the school even though very few if any know that we are religious so they might not be as careful around my kids as they are around others. 

    I put this in the same category as when the teacher tells the kids things I consider to be age-inappropriate. For example, last week, my daughter's fourth grade teacher felt the need to tell the class both about Kobe Bryant's helicopter crash, and the coronavirus pandemic. I was like, really? What was the point of that, other than freaking the kids out? So it led to conversations at home, which ultimately is my job as the parent - to help my children navigate the information they receive at school and mesh it with our family's values. I am not bringing it up to the teacher - she's gonna say what she's gonna say; her judgement of what's appropriate is obviously not mine, but I don't want her to feel like I'm censoring her.

    I would first verify who is saying this and in what context, which it sounds like you're doing. Kids can get things pretty mixed up in the re-telling. If it did come from a teacher during instructional time, I would definitely address it directly with the teacher. It's always better to speak directly (not email) with someone rather than going around them. If the teacher acknowledges the gist of what your kids said and is not willing to work with you, then go to the principal. I would be really displeased to hear proselytizing of any kind - including this kind - at my child's school. 

    Yikes. That's so disrespectful, and such an oversimplified view of religion and spirituality. I don't have school-aged kids yet so I'm not sure whether approaching the teacher or the principal is better, but I do think you should speak out. Maybe just a simple "Tolerance of philosophical differences is an important social skill in a pluralistic society, and it's important to us that the teachers model that"?

    I agree that any pro- or anti-religion messages are inappropriate in public schools. Assuming you heard this by direct report from your daughter, I think you should write a letter to letter to the principal stating the comments that your daughter reported being made by a teacher, and pointing out that such comments are inappropriate in a public school setting. My guess is that your principal would want to know about this issue and will address it with his/her staff, especially given the value placed on inclusivity in the Bay Area. If you heard about this indirectly, and your daughter cannot corroborate, I would call that too little evidence to write a letter.

    Trying to think about how such comments could be made in an elementary school classroom: I can't think of a reason a teacher would bring up the topic of God themselves, but I can imagine a student giving God as an explanation for something, and the teacher not being ready with a perfectly neutral, appropriate response (teachers are people too!). Maybe this particular teacher could prepare a bit better for this situation: If a student brings up God as an explanation for something, maybe something like "There are lots of different levels of explanation, and in science we look a different level of explanation than God" and steer away after that. 

    What you are describing is religious teaching in a public school.  The teacher is advocating atheism over other forms of religious expression. Evangelical atheism has no more place in public school curriculum that evangelical Christianity.    I recommend bringing to the attention of the principal who can remind the teachers that advocating any form or religion over others if forbidden in the school.  With your children it is a good opportunity to discuss the variety of religious ideas and expression they will find around them in the world.  

    As an atheist, I can completely relate to your post. A teacher at our public elementary school told the kids that God created the alphabet and stuff like that. Teachers and schools should be neutral on religion - they shouldn't push it or condemn it. I would talk to your principal. Regardless of his or her personal beliefs, your kids' teacher should not be providing that kind of commentary on religion in a public school setting.

    Sounds like you might be a little defensive?  Just explain your beliefs to them.  Not everyone will share those beliefs, nor will everyone necessarily agree with everything the teacher is saying.  Why is this a problem?

    Teachers are supposed to keep their opinions about religion out of the classroom. Plain and simple. He/She/They were being inappropriate and crossed a line. It’s not in their job description to sway your child’s beliefs or lack of beliefs one way or the other unless your kid attends parochial school. 

    Speaking as a contented third-generation atheist, if a teacher is indeed saying such things, I think that s/he is out of line and that you should have a polite chat with this person. (However, this sort of thing is also a good conversation starter at home.) For my part, I was irritated--as were some Jewish parents--when a 5th-grade classroom volunteer brought our kids "inspirational" t-shirts that mentioned, among other things, the importance of believing in Jesus, but I was especially shocked the teacher had allowed this in the first place; volunteers weren't that hard to recruit at our neighborhood public school. Religion, including disrespect for others' faith, has no place in public schools, apart from comparative-religion studies in the higher grades.

    Hi, I think you should bring it up with the main teacher and acknowledge you don't know where/what teacher it is coming from and what you heard from your kid and why it concerns you. This will give you more information. I recommend you approach it with an open mind, considering you got the information second hand through your kid. There's always a chance your kid heard wrong, or it was a one time thing the teacher regrets. Or maybe this is what the teacher believes is appropriate to teach, and then you can go talk with the principal and let him/her know your concerns. It will be best if you can figure out from your kid which teacher, but it can be hard to get clear info from a young kid (another reason to approach with open mind). Good luck

  • Hope is ok to ask question like this...

    My husband and I are planning ahead for our son education path, picking school, should we move? private school? There nothing much we are looking into as we both believe every kids learn differently, as long as students don't sell drug we are ok with the school.

    However, there only one thing we really concern and would like to look around is “teaching gender differences”. This is really a big thing for us as a Jesus believer and really don't want our son feel confuse if the school are teaching different than what we believe.

    So, how other Christian parents choose at the end? and how was it? really need some advice...

    sounds like you should definitely pick a Catholic school. My hope is that you won't find any school at all, of course. I don't remember Jesus saying anything bad about transgender people, but maybe you read a different Bible than I do. 

    Is it possible that Jesus would be accepting of gender differences? 

    I am confused by what you mean as "teaching gender differences."  Do you mean teaching traditional gender *roles*, like having home economics class for girls and woodshop class for boys?  Or are you referring to sexual orientation, and teaching that women should marry men (i.e. you want a school that teaches that homosexuality is wrong)?  These are my two best guesses from your message.  If either one of them is true, then I think the only school you will find satisfactory is a private, conservative Christian school.  A Bay Area public school is not going to teach either of these things.  I say a "conservative" Christian school, because I also am a devout Christian, but don't agree with either of these statements -- the religious school that I would consider sending my child to doesn't include either of these teachings.  If a private school is out of reach financially, you could also move to a more conservative area of the state/country, where a public school might be more inclined to teach either/both of these messages.  Good luck in your search.

    If what you are asking is "where can I find a school that will teach my children that homosexuality is wrong and all gays are going to hell and if a boy wants to wear a dress he is also going to hell", then I would suggest you either homeschool or look to see if you can find a church with a very narrow vision that has a small school attached. I don't know if you will find one in the Bay Area. Perhaps you should try the Central Valley. 

    Our children's Catholic school teaches loving inclusion of everyone regardless of sexual orientation or affiliation.  The school even has an upper elementary girl student who chooses to wear short cropped hair and the boy uniform instead of the girl one. She is accepted the same as the other children. The expectation as far as I can tell is that if she needs to choose entirely a boy uniform or a girl uniform - she can't pick and choose the elements she like she of each. 

    I am not sure by your question if you are looking for a school that teaches gender differences or not.  Also, how do you define gender differences?  If you want your kids to go to a Christian school there are plenty of Christian private schools.  Investigate each school and see if they meet your needs.  You could spend your entire life trying to count how many ways people approach Christianity. There are very liberal and very conservative observers.  

    If you want to control what your son believes, and you don't want others to influence his beliefs, then you homeschool.

    I just wanted to pipe in and say that my husband and I also felt nervous about how our son's religious upbringing would translate in to the lessons and values reflected in the Bay Area school systems. We sent him to our church preschool and as elementary school approached we began to worry slightly that he would feel out of step with his peers due to our family's belief system. We did look at some private schools but none had the amount of academics, extra curricular and community feel we wanted for our family. So to make a long story short, I set up a time to meet with the principal at our son's local elementary school and express our concerns. She was very receptive and actually understood where we were coming from. She told us that she valued our choices as much as any other family and as part of their school anti-bullying campaign (Cornerstone Project) they discuss families that have different beliefs based on religion, ethnicity, family structure, etc. and that everyone is valid. 

    After hearing her out and speaking with other families in our church we decided to enroll him in Kinder at our local school. I was nervous but after this year I am so glad that we did it. Never once was there a topic that I felt like they were steering him differently than we would have. They have also opened his eyes to things that we may not have provided in a more sheltered school environment, like adopting a local refugee family at Christmas and being exposed to children who have family in more dangerous parts of the world. He did come home around valentine's day asking about gay marriage but we used it as a time to talk with him about how our family chooses a different path than others but we don't judge them the same way we would hope they wouldn't judge us. It was honestly the only time this year that anything even remotely difficult came up and I have come to realize that kids are just kids and most of the time its the parents (including sometimes me) that make things complicated. Never once did he ever come home with mixed up or questionable ideas about gender identity and I would imagine that it is not something people would be discussing in elementary school. 

    I am so pleased with our decision to send him to our neighborhood school! I now realize that my son will have questions and interactions with people who have different beliefs than us for the rest of his life and I hope that by providing him with a diverse educational setting we can help him navigate those situations through discussion and compassion. Ultimately, I want him to be strong in his own beliefs and providing him a real-world setting to learn and grow is something I am very proud of. 

    I know that it is scary for us parents but kids are super resilient and growing up in an awesome place like the Bay Area means that they will likely navigate these issues all the way through adulthood.

    Good luck!

    I can't speak for Oakland, but I know the Berkeley and Albany schools are very liberal and consider the teaching of inclusion in relation to race, culture, gender, and gender identity to be central to its mission. I think probably the only way to ensure your children are not taught these things at school is to have them attend a private Christian school (although even there I wouldn't assume without asking that they hold the same views you do.) The other thing to consider is that—even if you send your kids to a conservative Christian school—they are going to be part of a larger Bay Area community who, in general, is appreciative of gender identity diversity. This is one of the things I love about the Bay Area, but if you don't, I think it's probably going to be a challenge, over the long run, to keep your children from absorbing some of these ways of looking at the world.

    I cannot wait to read the responses, this is a very brave question to ask this community.  We have similar beliefs at home though I also want my kids to fit in the bay area society and not to be marginalized or get in trouble in school with the teachers because of this belief.  We taught our kids that we at home believe x but other people believe y and it is ok as everyone can live their life as they see fit.  It seems to work and my kids understand that each family has their own rules and beliefs and these are ours and others' beliefs are not wrong, they are just different.  My kids are in public school and it is ok but we have a lot of discussions at home too.  I think unless you are willing to phrase it in this or similar way you will have to find a religious private school that would agree with your teachings.  I would not choose public school in Bay Area if you are looking for this type of education or even want to do these type of teachings at home (without explaining to your kid not to preach it at school as others believe differently) since your kid will not be happy and will likely get into a lot of conflicts with teachers and administration if the kid voices your home beliefs in school.   I learned that this area is very much intolerant when it comes to conservative values. Good luck. 

    I'm a little confused. Do you want a school that teaches it is wrong to be gay or for children to have gay parents? That would be hard to find in the Bay Area. On the other hand most schools are good at saying there are all kinds of families. Straight, gay, one parent, two-parent, grandparent, etc. There are people with many religious beliefs in most schools, and in all likelihood your child would find friends who are also Christian.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Son is learning religious songs in public school

March 2002

Dear Parents & Educators,
I heard my 9 year old son joyfully singing yesterday, and then I realized the songs made reference to ''Lord O Lord'' and ''take me to Mt. Zion, Lord''. My son said he learned these songs in music class, which infuriates me since he attends public school. On one hand, it's great that my kid is getting a music/singing class, but I am upset because what's done is done and I can't change the fact that now my kid knows these songs, despite my own highly feminist, everything-with-a-grain-of-salt agnostic beliefs. Do I have any grounds for recourse? What can I do? Isn't this a violation of our first amendment rights???

I have to say I'm of mixed emotion about this issue. I did a lot of singing in all of my public education (choirs up through college at a UC) and the majority of western music out there is christian-themed. The musical masters of the past many centuries did this presumably becuase everyone did and the much more authoritarian church of the time pretty much demanded it. However, these are great pieces of music no matter what the words are saying.

I too am some flavor of agnostic or athiest or something, and am very disenchanted by how most people of the world are doing the exact wrong things with their religious beliefs (ie using them for hatred, wars, elitism, etc). But on the other hand if I were ever to be a music teacher in a public school, I imagine a fraction of the songs I'd do would be older classics, which means some will be religious. As long as the teacher isn't trying to convey a lot meaning to the students from the words in these songs, I wouldn't worry to much about it, personally. Similarly I wouldn't be upset by my kids learning some songs/games/dance from other cultures that happened to be relegious in origin. MCM

If you don't allow your child contact to any religious songs in school, you are depriving him of some very beautiful music. Goodby to all the Bach cantatas, for that matter, nearly all early music such as Gregorian chants, bye-bye to major pieces that have an important place in our culture such as Handel's Messiah and Beethovan's Ode to Joy... the beautiful Masses and Requiums of Mozart... many other beloved composers who wrote for the Church or to honor religious holidays. Not just Christian music but for other religions too. And there is a wealth of more recent American music that you'd have to bid farewell to .. goodby to a lot of bluegrass, the great old country songs, and all those soul-stirring gospel tunes -- much of the music from the Civil Rights era was either adapted from earlier church music or used directly. Goodby Paul Robeson and Marion Anderson. Goodby to all the gospel tunes of Aretha et al. Personally, speaking as a non-believer and a major music fan, I would be much happier if my children were learning Hark the Herald Angels & Go tell it on the Mountain instead of pap like Rudolf & Frosty! Ginger

I am totally in favor of separation of church and state! But, I also believe that knowledge is power, and ignorance is not bliss. My daughter attends a local public school and has learned Jewish songs (we are not Jewish), Christian songs (we are not Christian, either), and so on. But, although these songs are religious, they are also (at this point) American Folk Songs. They are part of the fabric that makes up this multicultural, multireligious Bay Area. I would be a bit worried if she came home and told me that they were praying in school, or something like that, but to sing a song that has (or once had) a religious meaning seems fairly harmless, especially when that song has become one that belongs to us all, not just the religous among us. Enjoy your child's voice! Mary

This would freak me out too! What about the children in that music class whose parents are raising them in a Muslim, Buddhist, Druid, or Atheist family, etc.? In my opinion, a public school should not be teaching songs that reference deities from a specific belief system. You have every right as a parent to contact the school administration and ask that they examine the music teacher's song list and ask that this teacher remove the songs that are inappropriate for a public (funded by the government) school. Marianne

I am sorry to hear that your child is doing something that offends you, but please put this into perspective before you approach the subject. Are you only upset because it is Judeo-Christian? What about the new Muslim teaching that includes the children reading from the Koran, dressing up for Ramadon, etc? Does that upset you? If you are against all forms then by all means please talk to your principal. I don't like the increasing trend of parents not being able to stand their children uttering something for which the Country was founded, but openly embrace all other forms of ''religious enlighening'' from the public schools. I hope that you think before you act. Tolerance is not only for those who must tolerate your beliefs. Concerned Parent who wishes she could sign without reprocussions from the community.

There is a distinction, I think, between singing a song in the context of a music class and singing that same song during an involuntary religious ceremony. These songs are not being used to worship a deity, and have as much religious charge as 'Old MacDonald Has A Farm.' This country has a rich musical tradition of bluegrass and gospel songs that do contain religious references but are sung in a secular context. Janet

If your child learned songs with Christian overtones in the Berkeley Public Schools, I'm actually glad to hear it -- but surprised. It's been my experience that the schools here are TOO concerned about what you call ''Separation of Church and State'' -- and almost paranoid regarding any hint of Christianity.

I think you should relax and be guided by the fact that your child did not feel traumatized by this event...

The school is not teaching him religion. He learned a song that includes religious words. (a parallel would be teaching sex education -- learning ABOUT it isn't the same as having it or forcing others to).

You are the most important influence in your sons life. You can use the incident as a stepping off place for a discussion of religion. Tell him what you do (or don't) believe, and why. In your place I would be teaching him that tolerance also includes respect for, and interest in the religions of others, even Christians. Heather

OK, I know I will be in the minority here, but I don't think this is so terrible. At age nine, I'd be happy he isn't belting out the lyrics to some Nine Inch Nails number. If there are other signs of religious brainwashing at the school, OK, protest, but the fact that these songs have what sounds like some sort of basis in the Old Testament to me doesn't make them automatic anathema. You say your own philosophy is take it with a grain of salt - I'd take this with a grain of salt too, and perhaps a pinch of humor. Fran

Personally I don't see this as a separation of church and state issue. There is a difference between teaching and preaching, and just because a teacher covers a topic that may be related to a specific religion doesn't mean that they are preaching it.

In fact, our state has adopted standards of education in every subject, and at every grade level that include teaching children about different cultures and religions. Here is the link to the state's curriculum standards:

I did a cursory look into the Visual and Performing Arts standards and at about every grade level it specifies that students are to learn about varieties of music, and to analyze it from different historic and cultural perspectives. Based on that, I would say that your child's music teacher is simply following the standards she is required to teach.

By the way, I don't recall if you said what grade level your child is in, but if singing a spiritual song in music class is upsetting, then I would advise you to brace yourself for the future. In Social Studies your child will be learning about different religions as part of the state's curriculum.

As a teacher I have had some parents who questioned why I taught certain subjects. Believe me, it is not to promote my religious or cultural preference. I teach Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity because they are all required topics. I don't think that learning about these topics is detrimental to students anyway. We live in a diverse society. If the students aren't taught about different cultures and religions they can't help but have a very narrow view of the world. I suggest to parents that they read the text book that we use in class, that they talk to the students about what we are learning, and that they discuss their own beliefs with their children. Kids understand that not everyone is the same. They can handle knowing about something other people believe in with out adopting it as their own. a mom who is a teacher

I just want to add a little to discussion. Not only are these ''religious songs'' part of our culture, remember, they were often full of double meanings during slavery and the Underground Railroad. Another reason they are used so much is they are often limited in vocal range and are easy, repetitive melodies, good for inexperienced singers. Deborah